Most likely, it was a joyous release of frustration and repeated disappointment four years in the making.
When Wharton clinched the volleyball program’s first victory over Plant on Sept. 10, dozens of fans poured out of the stands, onto the floor and, improbably enough, into the headlines. The resulting celebration became one of the rare ones to make the front page of a daily newspaper.
But lost in the commotion: the Wildcats finally gave their fans something to scream about.
No team had bedeviled the fledgling Wharton program quite like the 10-time state champion Plant Panthers. So when the Wildcats finished off their 25-18, 23-25, 25-17, 25-23 victory in front of their infamous “Blue Crew,” the results were mostly predictable.
“We had always been kind of intimidated by Plant,” said Wharton’s Caci Andreychuk, a senior outside hitter. “So to finally beat them, it was really exciting and it pumped everyone up.”
The fallout: Several Plant parents took their complaints about the behavior and sportsmanship of Wharton’s players and fans public.
In a Tampa Tribune article a few days later, Plant supporters claimed Wharton fans turned their backs when Panthers players were introduced, used obscenities when they disagreed with calls and rushed the floor when the Wildcats clinched the victory.
Wharton administrators have disputed many of those claims. The complaints have been referred to the Hillsborough County school district’s Office of Professional Standards.
Outside of Wharton’s gym, few took note of the significance of the victory. The Wildcats hadn’t even won a game against Plant in the past seven matches.
“They are the top program in the city,” Wildcats coach Eric Barber said. “They were where we want to try to get to. So a lot of us are aware that we’ve not had a lot of success against them.”
Wharton has made steady improvement since Barber, the former junior varsity coach, took over as head coach in 2009.
The Wildcats won six games in Barber’s first season, nine in 2010, and followed that with the best season in the program’s short history. Wharton finished 19-4 in 2011, including 11 wins in its first 12 matches and a 7-0 record at home.
A closer inspection of that record, however, reveals half of those losses came against Plant. That includes a crushing 25-18, 25-16, 25-21 defeat in the second round of the playoffs.
“It was really disappointing,” said Ashton Stocker, a 6-foot-1 senior who transferred to Wharton last year. “We really thought we were ready for them. But we just didn’t play our game.”
Things changed when the Wildcats got their chance against Plant last week. Already brimming with confidence after a 5-0 start, Wharton jumped out to a 25-18 win in the first game.
“It was kind of eye-opening,” Andreychuk said. “We knew we had the potential to beat them.”
The Wildcats closed out the Panthers by winning the final two games, setting off the wild scene.
“It was disappointing to see the light taken from that” victory, Barber said. “My girls did everything they were supposed to do.”
And most importantly, they hope to keep giving their fans more to cheer.